The other day I found an interesting article in the New York Times about monolingualism and multilingualism in the USA and elsewhere. There’s a widespread belief that most Americans are monolingual in English, and that elsewhere it’s common for people to know two or more languages. The article asks whether this belief is true.
The question about language in the US census focuses on language use at home and doesn’t ask about use of languages other than English elsewhere, and the writer points out that many Americans who speak foreign languages speak only English at home, so for the purposes of the census they are monoglot English speakers. According to the 2009 census, for example, 20% of Americans speak a language other than English at home. The aim of the census is not to discover people’s foreign language skills, but to “track immigrants’ integration into mainstream American society and to ascertain what services they need, and in what languages”, so this is understandable.
The writer suggests that a better question would be “Can you have a conversation in a language besides your mother tongue?”, which was asked in a survey by the European Commission in 2006 – 56% of those who completed that survey answered yes. So perhaps the assumption that bilingualism and multilingualism are normal and unremarkable in much or the world is not entirely true. There are no reliable figures on this anyway, so it’s impossible to be sure. The conclusion is that Americans may be no more or less multilingual than people in other countries.